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Milosevic: The Life and Death of a Strongman


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Susan Stamberg.

The former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was found dead in his prison cell at The Hague today, apparently of natural causes. He was 65 years old and had been on trial for war crimes before a U.N. tribunal. Milosevic was the man most responsible for Yugoslavia's bloody disintegration. From Communist Party apparatchik to Serbian ultranationalist, he fomented ethnic and religious hatred and inspired his followers to carry out atrocities. Here's NPR's Sylvia Paggioli.


The rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic is indelibly linked to the date June 28. It's St. Vitus Day, the major Serbian national holiday. In 1389, it was the day Serbian Prince Lazar was defeated by the Turks in Kosovo, a defeat followed by 500 years of Ottoman domination. In 2001, June 28 was Milosevic's day of ignominy. Under armed guard, he was extradited to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes and genocide in the Balkan wars of the '90s.

Only 12 years earlier, on St. Vitus Day, a colorless party hack had been transformed into an ultranationalist demigod.

It was the 600th anniversary of the Turkish victory. Milosevic addressed thousands of Serbs gathered on the battlefield of their medieval defeat by Muslims, and he vowed it would never happen again. That day, he began to consolidate his power, and in the following months he galvanized Serbs, promising triumph at home and abroad. The war cry was echoed by the mass media, which he tightly controlled. State-run TV was filled with undocumented tales of hundreds of rapes and murders of Serbs, allegedly committed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

By 1990, Kosovo had been stripped of its autonomy and reduced to a virtual police state. Milosevic was always an enigma. All that's known about his early years points to a troubled family history. His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest, who abandoned the family, and then committed suicide. His mother killed herself years later, as did a favorite uncle.

Journalist Dusko Doder, author of Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant, believes these traumas made Milosevic callous to atrocities and the sufferings of others.

Mr. DUSKO DODER (Author, Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant): At one point, Milosevic was in a small circle of friends, had a few drinks and so forth. This was before the war started, and he said, well, if 200,000, 300,000 people get killed, but we restore...it's worth restoring Dushan's Kingdom, Sha Dushan from the 13th century or whatever, which tells you it's an insight into the man who didn't care about human beings.

PAGGIOLI: While an abundance of unsavory nationalist leaders can share blame for the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was Milosevic who was dubbed the Butcher of the Balkans, and throughout his political career, his closest partner and most trusted advisor was his wife, Mirjana, a strident Communist ideologue who also had a tragic family history. The ruling couple lived a reclusive life, a mixture of gothic horror and Shakespearian tragedy. One Belgrade intellectual described the Milosevic home as the court of Macbeth, saying the husband was in love with his wife's madness.

Dejan Anastasijevic is a Serbian journalist who testified for the prosecution at Milosevic's war crimes trial. He says Milosevic was not a typical dictator. There was no cult of personality, no statues to be torn down after his overthrow. Anastesievic describes Milosevic as a cynical opportunist, who used nationalism, Communism and even capitalism to keep his grip on power.

Mr. DEJAN ANASTASIJEVIC (Serbian Journalist): He was a politician. He was a master of manipulation. He was a master of making his enemies fight one another instead of fighting him, and for him most of the world, and especially most of the region, were enemies.

PAGGIOLI: When in 1990, Croatian President Franjo Tudman began steering his republic toward independence, Serbs living in Croatia feared for their safety. It was Milosevic who successfully exploited still-vivid memories of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were slaughtered by Croatian fascists. In 1991, with the help of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, the war in Croatia was launched with the goal of creating a greater Serbia.

A year later, when Bosnia declared its independence, Milosevic again fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism. He raised the specter of Muslim domination, saying Bosnia's Muslim majority wanted to impose a fundamentalist Islamic state, and for more than three years Milosevic proxies, local warlords and paramilitary groups bombed and besieged the capital, Sarajevo, ethnically cleansed nearly half the territory and carried out some of the most brutal war crimes of the late 20th century.

But the man who inspired, funded and armed the militias always publicly distanced himself from the forces he had spawned. In June 1992, he told reporters...

President SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC (Former President of Yugoslavia): We are not supporting any military action in Bosnia Herzegovina. We are only supporting our people to survive there with the humanitarian and civilian help.

PAGGIOLI: When the dream of Greater Serbia was shattered in 1995, as NATO bombed Bosnian-Serb targets and 200,000 Serbs were expelled from Croatia, Milosevic reshaped himself as peacemaker. He signed the Dayton Peace Plan for Bosnia.

In 1998, Kosovo Albanians abandoned their decade-long policy of peaceful resistance. The newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army began a guerilla campaign against Serbian police. Milosevic again turned warmonger. His police and nationalist thugs unleashed a brutal campaign of killings and expulsions of Kosovars. But journalist Dejan Anastasijevic says this time Milosevic lost control.

Mr. ANASTESIEVIC: For him, Kosovo was an opportunity. He wanted another Bosnian war, ending with something like another Dayton, but this time he would probably expect to demand more, and he overplayed because the West this time called his bluff very quickly.

PAGGIOLI: Milosevic's dream of international recognition as a statesman was shattered in May 1999. As NATO was bombing Yugoslavia to stop Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo Albanians, the International War Crimes Tribunal indicted him. A few weeks later, his country in physical and emotional disarray, Milosevic made yet another tactical retreat. He bowed to NATO and withdrew his troops from Kosovo, virtually yielding that sacred Serbian land to foreign occupiers and to its majority Albanian population.

Over the next year and a half, Milosevic tightened the screws on his domestic opposition. He is said to have ordered assassinations of political rivals, and he increased police brutality. Again, he overplayed, and Serbs, with considerable Western help, overthrew him in a peaceful show of people's power.

On February 12, 2002, for the first time, a former head of state went on trial for war crimes. Even though he refused to recognize the U.N. tribunal, Milosevic acted as his own lawyer, using the trial in The Hague as a political platform to rant against what he saw as the West's conspiracy against Serbs. The proceedings dragged on as his health worsened, but the defendant, speaking through a translator, never lost a chance to express his contempt for the international tribunal.

President MILOSEVIC: (Through Translator) In the history of mankind, this kind of ruling and decision-making and passing sentence is only something we know from the times of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, never before and never after.

PAGGIOLI: Biographer Dusko Doder says Slobodan Milosevic was a man whose legacy is a Serbia mired in poverty and isolation and drained of many of its best-educated people.

Mr. DODER: He's sort of a village type. There's village smartness, cunning. There's no vision whatsoever. He was a man without any kind of moral scruples and in the process, he was more destructive for the Serb nation than any single leader since Prince Lazar.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

STAMBERG: Oh, Sylvia, this all takes us back to such terrible times. A few questions for you. You've covered the Balkan Wars for us in the 90s and also what's happened there since. Tell us a bit about these past four years now that the Milosevic trial has been going on.

POGGIOLI: Well, I think the most important thing that has emerged in this trial is that it showed really unequivocally that Milosevic was ultimately responsible for war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. But most analysts agree that the prosecutors so far have been unable to prove the charge of genocide against Milosevic. This certainly has to do also with the specific legal requirements to prove the responsibility for genocide. They were not able to pin that charge on the Serbian leader. So after four years after a tremendous amount of money spent and huge expectations, the trial now has been very abruptly interrupted.

STAMBERG: Yeah, but why did it last so long?

POGGIOLI: Well, I think there are two reasons. It's just entered its fifth year and had a long way to go still. Well, one was the prosecution was very ambitious and decided to lump together all three major wars, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in one trial. Many analysts say this was a mistake, that it would've been much better to have had three separate trials and three separate verdicts. The other reason is that in a sense when Milosevic surprised everyone, he said he didn't recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal, the U.N. tribunal, but he decided to act as his own lawyer.

Well, in that moment, he effectively was able to use the trial really as his platform and set his own agenda and timetable in the courtroom. And you know, the fact that it lasted so long without producing any results infuriated many victims and relatives of victims in the Yugoslav wars. One of the main purposes of these war crimes is to close the chapter of war and to begin the process of healing and reconciliation. Not much of that has happened in the Balkans.

I was in Srebrenica last summer for the 10th anniversary of the massacre of more than 8,000 young Muslim men and the anger and disappointment of the victims was really very, very strong.

STAMBERG: Yeah, thank you so much. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.